This guy walks into a talent agent’s office and says, “I’ve got a great act. It’s a family act. My wife and little son and daughter are in it. We walk on stage and (censored), then we (censored), and then I (censored, censored) while she (really censored), and for the finale, we all (really, really censored).”
The talent agent says, “That’s horrible. It’s disgusting. I’ve never heard anything like it. What do you call yourselves?”
After a perfect comic beat, the guy proclaims, “The Aristocrats!”
It’s possibly the worst setup and worst punchline in the world, but that’s all part of the joke. What really matters is the abominably foul-mouthed midsection, filled with acts of such unspeakable degradation, you’ll either run for the shower to wash your ears out with soap or fall over laughing.
Comics Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette are in the fall-over-laughing camp. Their wonderfully raunchy, often hilarious documentary “The Aristocrats” chronicles the vaudevillian roots of this legendary backstage gag and features about 100 of their fellow comedy performers telling and discussing the joke.
The result, though not for the prudish, is as entertaining as any late-night, no-holds-barred standup act. It’s also an insightful, incisive treatise on why we laugh and why tales of the grossest, most heinous acts imaginable can tickle us to contortions of hilarity when shared in the nudge-nudge, wink-wink confines of our safe circle of friends.
Director Provenza and collaborator Jillette, the tall half of the stage duo Penn & Teller, spent about two years meeting with friends and associates to film their observations about their own and others’ great tellings of the joke.
Not a gag comics generally tell to audiences, “The Aristocrats” is the ultimate inside joke, told and retold after-hours by comrades on the comedy circuits, each trying to one-up their predecessors with filthier, nastier versions.
“I remember that I fainted,” Phyllis Diller recalls about the first time she heard it.
“There was nothing you could come up with that would possibly be wrong,” Paul Reiser observes.
“You get to play with people’s little danger zones,” says George Carlin.
The joke traditionally piles on feces, urine and vomit by the wheelbarrow. There’s bestiality involving the family dog, carnival displays of incest involving young children, necrophilia involving grandmas.
Versions often have family members wallowing in beef entrails. One teller added a white-slavery theme and a zeppelin race. Another included a woman giving birth to a 3-pound Shetland pony.
Penn describes the joke as a “secret handshake” among comedians, who not only aim to outdo one another with their versions, but also regale each other with stories of epic renditions they’ve heard.
Reiser refers to it as a set opening and closing, with a unique “body of performance in the middle,” like a simple jazz melody around which people concoct their own grand improvisations.
Provenza and Jillette capture Billy the Mime performing a wordless version in front of unsuspecting passers-by on the sidewalk. Kevin Pollak impersonates Christopher Walken telling the joke in his halting speech.
The film features Gilbert Gottfried doing the joke at a Hugh Hefner roast shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, his rendition cracking up the crowd so much that Rob Schneider falls off his chair.
The comic highlights are countless. Whoopi Goldberg and Sarah Silverman deliver priceless moments. Carrie Fisher turns the joke into a rollicking family reminiscence. Bob Saget, star of the family sitcom “Full House,” surprisingly turns in a couple of the foulest, funniest segments.
Michael McKean of “This Is Spinal Tap” offers the most succinct observation about the lure and durability of “The Aristocrats” gag: “It kind of makes its own gravy, this joke.”